Port Tobacco and the Silt that Suffocated Chesapeake Communities

The fields that line the Chesapeake Bay’s back roads make for pretty scenery. Full of fruit in summer, fallow in winter, the farmland has that rustic, rural charm that attracts so many people to the countryside. For all its appeal, though, that landscape comes at a steep price. It smothered the life out of Port Tobacco and so many other tidewater towns.

Port Tobacco’s western border is a patch of marsh that comprises the headwaters of the Port Tobacco River (here is the village on Google Maps). Large merchant ships once called here, unloading finished goods and taking on the all-important and ever-profitable tobacco (although, oddly enough, the town’s name derives from a corruption of the local Potopaco tribe rather than the crop that was its lifeblood).

Port Tobacco 3      Port Tobacco

Foundations of an old building at Port Tobacco Village and what once was a bustling town square.

The village became an important town, Maryland’s largest port on the Potomac River and the second largest in the state. There were a few dozen homes there, not to mention all the civic and commercial buildings needed to support day-to-day activities. All that changed as farmers cut and sold timber and furrowed the virgin fields.

As trees disappeared from the landscape in place of neat rows of tobacco seedlings, there was no sponge to catch and filter the water than trickled from those fields. Topsoil ran off into the Port Tobacco River every time it rained. What had been a watercourse deep enough to accommodate large merchant ships soon filled up with silt. The head of navigation moved continually southward, away from Port Tobacco, and with it, the town’s raison d’etre.

Port Tobacco 2      Port Tobacco 5

L: Headwaters of the Port Tobacco River adjacent to the village  R: Port Tobacco River, mudflats and all

Despite several attempts to resurrect the town and a couple brushes with fame (George Adzerodt, conspirator in the Lincoln assassination, lived here for a time), Port Tobacco never really recovered from being silted up. Today Port Tobacco Village is a quaint little hamlet deep in Charles County, Maryland. It’s a scattering of several old homes, a school and a restored courthouse. That’s more than can be said for other tidewater communities such as Joppatowne that suffocated completely, buried by silt that clogged the only avenue for getting their goods to market.

Port Tobacco 4      Port Tobacco 1

Port Tobacco’s one-room schoolhouse and courthouse

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
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